China is about to attempt something that only the United States and (very briefly) the Soviet Union have done before: successfully land a spacecraft on the surface of Mars.
Having orbited the planet since February, the Chinese craft, called Tianwen-1, is expected to send a landing vehicle on a difficult descent through the thin Martian atmosphere, possibly as soon as Saturday. If all goes well, that vehicle and the land rover it is carrying will join three Nasa spacecraft that are already surveying the planet.
The Chinese Mars mission may seem less sexy than Nasa’s latest, since it is essentially repeating feats that the Americans accomplished decades ago, but it represents another milestone in China’s ambition to make itself a “great space power”. More potential milestones lie ahead. Here’s what to know about them.
In January 2019, China became the first country to land a probe on the far side of the moon, the part that perpetually faces away from Earth. It was China’s second successful moon landing, after one in 2013.
That year, it put a rover on the moon’s surface that still operates today, far beyond the three months it was expected to last. In December, China sent yet another craft to the moon. It scooped up nearly four pounds of rocks and soil near a volcanic feature called Mons Rümker and brought them back to Earth — the first lunar samples since the ones collected by the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.
A rival space station
China’s launch in April of the main module for its newest orbiting space station drew more international attention than expected — for the wrong reasons. After reaching orbit, the main rocket booster tumbled ominously back to Earth in what is called an “uncontrolled re-entry.” The debris landed in the Indian Ocean in May, narrowly missing the Maldives and spurring criticism of how China carries out the launches of its heaviest rocket, the Long March 5B.
More launches like it are coming anyway. The mission was the first of 11 needed to build China’s third, and most ambitious, space station by the end of 2022.
The International Space Station, jointly developed by the US, Russia and others, is nearing the end of its intended life in 2024. What happens after that is unclear. If the station is decommissioned, China’s could be the only game in town for some time.
Mars and beyond
China’s Mars mission, called Tianwen (“Questions to Heaven”) after a classic poem, is trying in one go to complete a trifecta of feats that Nasa accomplished over a number of years. It is already in orbit around the planet, and the next step is to land a craft on the surface, which will release a rover.
China’s Tianwen orbiter has been surveying Mars and the intended landing site is Utopia Planitia, a large basin in the northern hemisphere. If it nails the landing, it will conduct a number of experiments studying the planet’s atmosphere.
@2021 The New York Times News Service
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